August 19 – Say cheese!

Today’s factismal: It is National Photography Day – go be a shutter bug!

Ah, photography! Just as the vinyl record made musicians out of those who couldn’t play an instrument, the camera has turned those who can’t draw into artists. (For the record, I can neither sing nor play an instrument nor draw. I’m a triple threat!) Though early photographs took eight hours of exposure to create an image (which is why they are primarily of windows and bowls of fruit), today anyone with a smartphone has a camera that can snap amazing images in a fraction of a second.

My favorite vacation picture (My camera)

My favorite vacation picture
(My camera)

And that’s where the science comes in. You see, we don’t just use photographs to record trips to Disneyland or awkward high school moments. We also use them to identify plants and landforms from space and to track migrating animals and to predict the weather. We can even use them to track the environment!

Using Picture Post, you can create a panorama of nine pictures (one for each cardinal or intercardinal direction and one of the sky above) and put it out where researchers can use it to track environmental changes. Even better, they’ve got tools on the website that allow you to do your own research on your photos or the pictures taken by other folks. So get out that camera and get snapping!

August 18 – Voice of Gold

Today’s factismal: The most successful opera singer of all time was Adelina Patti, who was paid $5,000 in gold before each performance.

Being an artist is a chancy thing. Your work may never be appreciated or it might be just a passing fad. And even if you do get paid, you rarely make as much as you would have digging ditches. While this can be annoying for a writer or painter, they at least have the solace that their work will endure even after they have gone (indeed, many writers and painters became famous only after they had died). But for actors and even more so for singers, the only time that their work can truly be appreciated is while they are alive because that is the only time that their work can truly be experienced.

A picture of the artist as a young lady (Image courtesy nananan)

A picture of the artist as a young lady
(Image courtesy Carte de Visite Woodburytype)

So it is always something special when an artist makes good. And nobody made better than Adelina Patti. The child of two opera singers and with three very musical siblings, Patti sang almost before she could talk. But where their careers were the usual, with periods of blissful employment interspersed between long stretches of looking for work, Patti was never unemployed except when she wanted to be. The secret to her success was her voice which was rich, full, and carried well (an important consideration in those pre-amplifier days). She first took to the stage in 1852 and within five years had become the toast of Europe and America, with concert halls vying for her presence and composers such as Verdi and Rossini creating works specifically for her. By 1865 her popularity was such that she could command $5000 in gold (the equivalent of $110,000 today) each night, payable before she sang a single note. When she sang 200 concerts in a year, she made the equivalent of $20 million!

Though her voice is gone, except for a few recordings made when she was older and her voice had matured out of its previous sweet clarity, the scores written for and about her are still around. However, many of them are only partially cataloged and lack the metadata that is needed to make them truly useful to both the casual music lover and the devoted musical historian. If you’d like to help clear up the backlog, then why not check out What’s the Score At the Bodleian?

August 17 – Wily Coyote

Today’s factismal: Cartoons notwithstanding, coyotes don’t eat roadrunners.

Though some may find it shocking, the classic Warners Brothers cartoons starring Wile E. Coyote don’t actually match what coyotes do in the wild. They don’t punch in and out of time clocks, they don’t order from Acme, and, believe it or not, they don’t eat roadrunners. That last is pretty surprising considering what a coyote will eat. As opportunistic carnivores, they will gleefully chow down on mice, prairie dogs, gophers (Mac and Tosh had better watch out!), snakes, lizards, rabbits (poor Bugs!), and birds – but not roadrunners (which are simply too fast to catch and too small to bother with). They’ll eat carrion or fruits and vegetables but prefer fresh meat.

A coyote in its natural habitat - suburbia! (Image courtesy Wild Suburbia)

A coyote in its natural habitat – suburbia!
(Image courtesy Wild Suburbia)

That lack of pickiness in their diet has made the coyote one of the most successful predators in North America. And their cleverness (even their name means “trickster”) only makes them more successful. When being hunted by a wolf, a coyote will run downhill; once the wolf has started running after it, the coyote doubles back and heads uphill. Because the wolf is much larger, it cannot turn around as quickly and the coyote can create a large enough lead to get away. They are also able to figure out many traps and have been known to open gates in order to get out livestock and to upset trashcans to get at the goodies inside.

And while many may think that coyotes only live in the desert or in the deep forest, they are increasingly at home in suburbs and even cities! Coyotes have been spotted in Seattle, Dallas, and even inside New York City. (No word on if they went to see Phantom.) Unfortunately, researchers aren’t sure just how many coyotes have made the move into the city, nor where they live. Fortunately, you can help. If you spot a coyote in your city, contact the local animal control agency. And if you live in the area around New York City, report your sighting to the folks at Wild Suburbia:

August 16 – Chomp!

Today’s factismal: The megalodon shark died out about 1.5 million years ago. No matter what the Discovery Channel says.

If there is one thing that Star Trek teaches us, it is that some sequels are worth watching (e.g., Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) but others are a waste of good popcorn (e.g., Star Trek III: The Search for Plot). This year, we’ve gotten two from the latter category. First, SyFy aired Sharknado 2: The Second One which, to be fair, spent a lot of time joking about the first one and actually had a grain of science at its root (in the same sense that a nursery rhyme might reflect politics). But then Discovery Channel doubled down on last’ years debacle and decided to re-air  Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives complete with yet more “evidence” of that the shark still “lives”.  Of course, given that the Discovery Channel’s “evidence” consists mainly of statements from scientists that were obtained under false pretenses and have been taken out of context and heavily edited, you shouldn’t place much reliance on them. To put things as bluntly as possible, the Discover Channel’s show wasn’t science, it wasn’t entertaining, and it wasn’t worth a megalodon’s copralite.

A megalodon jaw, seen from the side (My camera)

A megalodon jaw, seen from the side
(My camera)

But there’s always a bright side to this sort of nonsense, and here’s the bright side for this one: it has gotten people to talking about one of the world’s coolest sharks. Megalodon (bio-speak for “huge tooth”) is mostly known from fossils of its teeth, which are typically about the size of a dinner plate (explains the name, huh?). In addition to their teeth, fossilized megalodon skeletons have been found, thanks to the fact that they had a partially calcified skeleton instead of the pure cartilage skeleton of most sharks. Though they looked a lot like a Great White shark on steroids, they were probably more closely related to the Mako (though this is still controversial in the paleontological community).

My nephews get eaten by a megalodon (My camera)

My nephews get eaten by a megalodon
(My camera)

So how big did a megalodon get? Let’s put it this way: you’d need an aquarium the size of the Gulf of Mexico if you wanted to keep one as a pet. A full-grown megalodon was up to 60 ft long and four of them would weigh as much as a blue whale. And that’s not surprising, considering that they mostly fed on whales and any other large animal foolish enough to go swimming in their neighborhood!

A megalodon hunts his prey at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (My camera)

A megalodon hunts his prey at the Houston Museum of Natural Science
(My camera)

Unfortunately for them, their prey needed large, warm, shallow oceans to thrive. And as the climate changed over the past few million years, those places became harder to find. As a result, their prey either died off or adapted to deep water existence. And when a critter’s food source goes extinct, that critter’s end isn’t far behind. As a result, the last of the megalodons died about one and a half million years ago.

But we are still finding megalodon fossils in places like Florida, Spain, and Morocco. And we’re finding all sorts of other fossils, too! If you’d like to find some of your own, why not join PaleoQuest or your local mineralogical society?

August 15 – Sharknado 2

Today’s factismal: A “sharknado” could actually happen.

If there’s one thing that everyone agreed on last month, it was that the sequel to Sharknado was one of the dumbest things ever to air. From its cheesy title (Sharknado 2: The Second One) to its over-the-top run at the gold medal in the hamlimpics, the movie was so bad that it jumped past good and went into “my brain is down and I can’t get up!”. But what many people may not have realized is that there is a slim thread of truth hiding in the bloated mass of over-acting and cheesy special effects that was Sharknado. You see, we really could have sharks flying through the air.

The poster kind of says it all, doesn't it? (Image courtesy SyFy)

The poster kind of says it all, doesn’t it?
(Image courtesy SyFy)

If you doubt me, then go ask the people of Lajamanu, Australia, about what happened on February 25 and 26 in 2010. Live fish were flung through the air and fell all over the town, not once but twice. Actually, if you count the times this happened in 2004 and 1974, the town has been filled with flung fish four times! So what causes a fishnado? The simple answer is that nobody knows for sure. But many meteorologists think that what happens is that a tornado either forms over or crosses a lake that just happens to have fish swimming near the surface. The surface water, complete with fish, gets caught up in the waterspout and everything falls to the ground once it hits dry land and the tornado dies.

So if a tornado happened to cross a body of water and if it just happened to have a lot of small sharks (not adult Great Whites, something more like a foot-long dogfish) and if the tornado just happened to make its way back onto land before dying out, then you might get a sharknado. Maybe.

If you’d like to help meteorologists keep an eye out for the next sharknado, or even a bit of more prosaic (but far more likely) severe weather, then why not join Skywarn? They need folks like you to keep a weather eye out and help them identify and track severe weather. If you’d like to join, head on over to:

August 14 – Great Bite Shark

Today’s factismal: The white tip shark may be deadlier to humans than the great white shark.

When it comes to bad press, the great white shark is king. It is featured in movies (from the classic Jaws to the classically-bad Sharknado), aquariums, and the record books (with the highest number of documented attacks on people – 272). But it turns out that the great white may just be a victim of its own publicity; the real man-killer of the seas may be the white tip shark.

A whitetip shark in the Great Barrier Reef (My camera)

A whitetip shark in the Great Barrier Reef
(My camera)

Like the great white shark, the white tip shark is a ferocious predator. It likes to feast on squid, octopodes, and bony fish such as tuna (sorry, Charlie!). But, unlike the great white shark, the white tip shark doesn’t live near the shore; instead, it spends most of its time far out in the pelagic (open) ocean. And one of its favorite things to do is to follow ships, hoping for a little tasty trash of perhaps a nice, juicy sailor to fall overboard. And when it does, that’s when the white tip shark goes into a feeding frenzy so vicious that Cousteau once called them “the ocean’s most dangerous predator”.

"The ocean's deadliest predator" (My camera)

“The ocean’s most dangerous predator”
(My camera)

And that habit of following ships served the shark well on July 30, 1945. That’s when the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese destroyer. Within 12 minutes, the ship went down and some 896 sailors went into the water. Because this was wartime, the Indianapolis had left port without enough lifeboats for everyone. As a result, most of the sailors were forced to abandon ship with no lifeboat and no life jacket; they would spend the next three days swimming for their lives – literally. And if exposure, dehydration, and exhaustion weren’t enough dangers, the sailors were soon attacked by sharks. Over the next three days, some 559 sailors would die. In this one event, the whit tip shark may have killed more people than all of the great white shark attacks put together. But because there wasn’t any firm evidence that they were responsible, the official record doesn’t give them credit for the attacks. And so, even though the white tip shark is deadlier in truth, the great white holds the official record.

But the white tip shark also has a problem: people eat a lot more of them than they do people! The long fins of the white tip shark make it especially prized for shark fin soup. As a result, it has become vulnerable over much of its range. If you’d like to help keep the white tip shark from going the way of the dodo, or just want to keep one from munching on your toes, then swim on over to the Shark Trust where you can learn all kinds of neat things about all kinds of neat sharks!

August 13 – No bull!

Today’s factismal: Bull sharks have been seen in Lake Michigan, more than 1,600 miles from the ocean where they live.

Imagine, if you will, that you are in Chicago trying to out-do Ferris Beuller. You’ve gone to a Cubs game. You’ve eaten in the fanciest restaurant you could find. You’ve even headed for the top of the Sears Tower (excuse me – the “Willis Tower”). And you decide to round off the day by heading out to the lake for a nice, relaxing afternoon by the lake. But what do you see when you get there but the fin of a large shark, cruising up and down the coast! Sound like another fake Discovery Channel documentary? Believe it or not, it really happened!

How would you like to meet this in a lake? (Image courtesy J E Randall)

How would you like to meet this in a lake?
(Image courtesy J E Randall)

The reason that it happened is that not all sharks live in the ocean. Though the vast majority of sharks are dedicated sea dwellers, there are about five species that live exclusively in fresh water and another ten or so that can live in both fresh and salt water.  And that turns out to be a much harder trick than it sounds. The reason that it is difficult is because salt water has a lot of salt and fresh water doesn’t. And the reason that is important is because an animal, such as a shark, can only survive if it has the right amount of salt in its blood; too much or too little and it will die.

Fortunately, sharks (and people) have kidneys that have evolved to remove just the right amount of water and keep the blood at exactly the right level of saltiness. If it is a freshwater shark, then water percolates into the shark via osmosis (the movement of  water through a membrane in order to balance solution strength) and the kidneys remove a lot of water to keep the shark’s blood salty enough. If you’ve got a saltwater shark, then water leaves the shark through osmosis and the kidneys remove just enough water to move wastes out. But if you put a freshwater shark into salt water, the kidneys won’t know that it is in salt water and will keep removing water until the shark dies of dehydration in the ocean. And if you put a saltwater shark into fresh water, the kidneys won’t remove enough water and the shark will die of bloating.

A bull shark caught in the Amazon (Image courtesy Teodoro Vaske)

A bull shark caught in the Amazon
(Image courtesy Teodoro Vaske)

The bull shark and its other fishy friends who move from salt to fresh water and back have kidneys that are capable of adjusting the amount of water that they remove from the shark’s blood. That allows them to live in both the salty ocean and the fresh lakes, which means that they can search for food in more places. (And food makes sharks very happy.) And that’s probably what happened in Chicago; a bull shark headed up the Mississippi River chasing after lunch, then followed the fish through the Illinois River and ended up in Lake Michigan. Though it is fairly rare to see a bull shark that far up a river, they are fairly common in the estuaries and river mouths near oceans all over the world.

But we’re still learning about the bull shark and other fish. We still don;’t know for sure how common the bull shark is in shallow freshwater or how many rivers it swims up or what it likes to eat on these excursions into freshwater. If you see a bull shark (or other fish) and would like to help scientists learn more about them, why not add your information to the pile already stored over at Fish Base?